The Stanley Cup Finals start today when Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins face off against Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsuyk and the Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit this evening. To Caps Fans, this will be a good, hard fought series between two teams likely to be between the Capitals and the Cup when next year's regular season ends and the 2009 playoffs begin as well.
As indicated in earlier posts this blogger is predicting that the Red Wings will fall slightly short and this year's Cup will be the start of the Crosby - Malkin - Fluery era in Pittsburgh. That assumes Marc-Andre Fluery continues the stellar play he has shown so far in the playoffs, even though he is likely to be tested even harder than he has at any point of his career. At the other end of the ice, veteran Chris Osgood is unlikely to waiver, so fans will have a good yardstick by which to measure the Penguins' #1 netminder.
The contrast between the two teams should be interesting Lidstrom vs. Gonchar; Datsuyk vs. Crosby; Zetterberg vs. Malkin will all no doubt be featured in various VS. network highlights and commentaries. However, the real battles/contrasts to decide the series will more likely be Franzen (when he returns) vs. Stall; Samuellson vs. Hossa; Chelios vs. Gill; Kopecki vs. Sykora; Maltby vs. Malone; Filppula vs. Talbot, etc.. It's here, the backside of each team's depth chart, where the exceptional depth of both teams becomes apparent. It's also here where the youth, raw talent and SIZE of the Penguins becomes clear and there is a contrast to the experience, finesse and learned skill of the Red Wings. Given the length of the season and the comparisons between the two teams there seems to be the potnetial for a slight edge to go to the Penguins here though as they say "That's why they play these games on the ice." For now the only thing left to do is speculate on the future outcome. Who do you think will hoist the Cup above his head Penguins Captain Crosby or Red Wings Captain Lidstrom and after what game of the series?
All the above in consideration it certainly seems if the Washington Captials are to build on their accomplishments for 2007 - 2008 and advance further into the 2009 playoffs, they will meet the likes of at least one, if not both, these teams next year as well. Of course a lot of water needs to pass under the bridge before the Caps are assured to be playing hockey past tax day next year, but this year was "a breakout year" for the young Caps team. Assuming the Caps can resolve the following off ice challenges between now and the start of the 2008-2009 season: a) resign their young number 1 defenseman, Mike Green, who is currently a restricted free agent; b) sign a legitimate number 1 goalie, preferably the resigning of Christobel Huet who is an Unrestricted Free Agent; c) sort out their blue line corps so the once again have 7 or 8 legitimate NHL Blueliners on the roster; d) figure out what/how to accommodate a roster with a healthy Michael Nylander AND a Sergei Federov, if Federov wants to play another NHL season given his post deadline performance for the Caps and his clear chemistry with young gun Alexander Semin; e) sort out what they want to do with "grinders" Matt Bradley and Matt Cooke in a way that retains sufficient "grit" in the line-up but also gets some additional secondary scoring in the lineup besides Brooks Laich (who they need to resign) and hopefully a healthy Chris Clarke, Fans can once again expect to be watching hockey in "the phone booth" in late April next year.
The biggest area of likely change/fluidity for the Capitals is probably the Defense Corps. The resolution of the top 4 defenseman on Bruce Boudreau's roster card at the start of next season will require sorting out the resigning of Shoanne Morrisson (RFA) and Steve Emminger (RFA) as well as the status of Brian Pothier (Career Threatening?/Ending? Concussion Syndrome Injury), as well as the play and ranking of Milan Jurcina, John Erskine, Sami Lepesto, Ben Clymer and Karl Alzner. Basically the only things settled in the blueline corps seem to be a)Tom Poti will be back and b)the Caps want to resign Green and Morrisson but the salary cap implications of those two resignings and Pothier's status need to be understood, and Coach Boudrea has to understand and decide where he is on the depth chart ranking of Emminger, before Boudreau and General Manager George McPhee look at whether they feel they need to go to the free agent pool for another top 4 D-Man. It seems Jurcina, Erskine, Lepisto and Alzner are all likely to compete for roster slots 5 and 6 when camps open with Jurcina the likely #5.
The most critical area currently in flux is Goaltending. As has been highlighted well by DMG in his Caps Blue Line, the only NHL caliber goal keeper currently under contract for the Caps is backup Brent Johnson. Whether you're an "Olie the Goalie" continued supporter or not it certainly seems the Caps need to resign Christobel Huet now. It seems clear that Olie Kolzig will either end his career elsewhere or Caps fans will be seeing his number hoisted to the rafters of the VC next season if he retires after testing the free agent waters. None of the goalie prospects are NHL ready and even Fredric Cassivi last year's number #1 goalie on the Caps AHL Affiliate Hershey Bears is an unrestricted free agent, not that he's the right guy for the job any more than Johnnie is. If the Caps need to go into the Free Agent pool the pickings get slim pretty fast after Jose Theodore and if the Caps are willing/able to spend 5/6+M for a goalie, they will likely be just as able to save a few bucks and sign the 32 year old Huet rather than the 31 year old Theodore. Though both Huet and Theodore fit the right age bracket to fill the gap between the end of longtime number 1 Kolzig's Caps Career and the current prospects in the Caps system.
Forward line positions are a strength and all the Capital's Management Organization has in these positions at this point seem to be choices between good, better and best. That being said, General Manager George McPhee will still need to continue to do the excellent job of Salary Cap Management that he's been doing if the Caps are to rise to the heights that both of this evening's contestants have. LETS GO CAPS!!!! Can't Wait For Next Season.